Bioenergy researcher at West Virginia University digs into roots of sustainability | WVU Today

Miscanthus is a bioenergy crop that has the ability to produce fuel and sequester carbon dioxide. Jennifer Kane, a postdoctoral student at West Virginia University, recently received a $219,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study how microbes — such as bacteria and fungi — interact with Miscanthus roots to enhance plant productivity and sustainability.
(West Virginia University photos)

Researcher in West Virginia University Discover what facilitates the vigorous growth of miscanthus, a bioenergy crop that grows well on reclaimed mining land in Appalachia and has the ability to produce fuel and sequester carbon dioxide.

Little is known about what makes this crop so effective, so says Jennifer Kane, a… Plant and soil sciences Postdoctoral researcher at Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and DesignHe studies how microbes—such as bacteria and fungi—interact with Miscanthus roots to enhance plant productivity and sustainability.

Funded by a $219,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Ken works with mentors Amber Morrissey And Edward Brzostek Who is he with Biology department. Ken, a Leicester native, will measure the roots, study their chemistry and activity, and correlate that data with what’s happening above ground. Evaluating the system holistically may help researchers understand the conditions that enable the plant to thrive.

“We’re trying to connect what’s happening near the roots to what’s happening in the entire system,” Keane said. “Some of our results have shown that certain root traits — like how many roots are there, what their physical structure is, and even what their tissue chemistry is — explain some of the things we see in the soil microbiome.”

As Miscanthus photosynthesizes, it brings carbon from the atmosphere and deposits it underground, where it is absorbed by microbes. The microbes, in turn, release nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil, which plants cannot otherwise access. This trade can occur on or in the roots. Evidence suggests that the most active reaction occurs where the roots are in contact with the soil, an area known as the rhizosphere, Kane said.

“The plant can do some interesting things to manipulate microbes,” Kane said. “For example, they may produce more roots with a greater surface area to interact with more microbes. Or they may excrete more carbon from above ground to encourage microbes to release nutrients. So, this dynamic thing happens, where plants change their roots in ways Different types to benefit more from the microbial relationship.

While Miscanthus does not need fertilizer to thrive, researchers applied different types to plots in the field to study the results. This treatment includes chemical and organic fertilizers made from the Dimanor plant. Next, they will collect root and soil samples to analyze the effects of fertilizers on soil and carbon cycling.

“We wonder if this will disrupt these interactions and change the way plants try to get nutrients from the soil and microbes,” Kane said. “If we gave it to them for free, would they still invest in these relationships with microbes?”

Miscanthus is a good choice for study, because it is well suited to the Appalachian climate and is hardy to common soil challenges. In addition to its fast-growing nature, it withstands the harsh conditions that mining can bring to the landscape. Ken studies samples of plots of land in WVU Agricultural Engineering Farm And also Animal science farm. The two sites have unique soil characteristics and represent different types of terrain found in Appalachia; The former is a steep slope while the latter is located next to opencast mining and has been itself undermined.

Researchers have found that planting miscanthus improves soil conditions.

“We’re seeing nutrients and organic matter returning to the soil, and we think that has a lot to do with this relationship between Miscanthus and the soil microbiome,” Keane said. “Over time, it builds up favorable soil properties. All of this feeds into the idea that in the long term, with the right infrastructure, we can get this yield on these mine lands, and at least restore some of the good soil properties. But maybe in the future, we’ll be able to Use these plants to fuel the economy.

In addition to its underground benefits, the rapid growth of Miscanthus produces large amounts of biomass with relatively minimal greenhouse gases, which are released during cultivation, and researchers envision it as a carbon-negative, renewable source of bioenergy.

Morrissey said she believes Kane is an emerging leader in her field. The funding agency, NIFA, is part of the USDA.

“Jane is an ideal recipient for the USDA Postdoctoral Fellowship Program because she is a productive, creative young scientist who cares deeply about agricultural sustainability,” Morrissey said. “As a fellow, she will be able to simultaneously research fundamental questions about plant-microbe interactions and obtain information to improve bioenergy crop production on marginal lands in Appalachia.”

Przostek added that Kane’s research has the potential to change the understanding of how Miscanthus roots work, how they engineer soil microbes, and how they can grow in infertile soils such as abandoned mine lands.

For Ken, the importance of the research is clear.

“I grew up seeing the way Appalachia was affected by mining,” she said of her youth in Raleigh County. “Seeing some of these lands not only improved, but potentially returning to a more sustainable energy goal, will be a full circle moment.”



Media Contact: Jake Stump
WVU Research Communications

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